Heat defenceman Joe Piskula said it's a 'great challenge' to face the OKC Barons' up-and-coming NHL stars like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Heat notebook: Buzz building for Barons games

The excitement surrounding the Abbotsford Heat's weekend set with the Oklahoma City Barons is simply unprecedented.

The buzz surrounding the Abbotsford Heat’s weekend set with the Oklahoma City Barons is simply unprecedented.

The local AHL club announced via Twitter on Wednesday evening that both games (Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. start both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre) were sold out.

This marks the first time in Heat franchise history that they’ve sold out against an opponent other than the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate (the Manitoba Moose in 2009-10 and ’10-11, and the Chicago Wolves the past two seasons).

It’s also just the second time the Heat have sold out back-to-back games – the AESC was filled to its 7,046 capacity for both nights of a Jan. 12-13, 2010 doubleheader vs. the Moose.

The appeal of the Barons games is obvious.

The Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate has been the AHL’s greatest beneficiary of the NHL lockout’s trickle-down effect. They’re stacked with elite NHL-proven youngsters, including former No. 1 overall draft choices Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, and stunningly skilled sniper Jordan Eberle.

It’s been rookie pro Justin Schultz, though, who has been the most impressive of the Barons’ up-and-comers. The defenceman, who garnered interest from all 30 NHL teams when he tested the free agent market out of the University of Wisconsin in the spring, leads the AHL in scoring with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 games.

BARONS OFFER MEASURING STICK FOR HEAT

As excited as local fans are to see the Barons, there’s also plenty of buzz in the Heat locker room.

“It’s a good opportunity for our team and individuals to showcase themselves,” defenceman Joe Piskula noted. “If you want to play in the NHL, these are some of the future NHL stars, and you get to see where you measure up to guys like that. It’s a huge opportunity for yourself to see that, and obviously for your management and coaches to see that, as well.

“It’s a great challenge, and you’ve got to get pumped about that.”

For his part, Heat head coach Troy Ward isn’t particularly concerned with the opponent – he’s just eager to see continued growth from his team. But he believes his players will get caught up in the hype to a certain extent as Friday’s game approaches.

“You have an interest as a player to peek out in pregame skate, and it’s like, ‘Oh, there he is. Geez, he is fast,'” Ward said.

Ward called the Barons games “a unique measuring stick” for his charges.

“From a player’s perspective, I’m going to find out this weekend if I can play in the National Hockey League or not, at least in a snapshot way,” Ward noted. “Can I defend them one-on-one? Can I beat them up on the wall?”

BYRON BOUNCING BACK

Paul Byron (pictured right) could make his return to the Heat lineup this weekend.

The 23-year-old centre suffered an upper body injury prior to training camp, but he’s been a full participant in practice the past week and a half.

“It’s something that happened in the summer while I was skating and training, something fluky,” Byron explained. “I didn’t really think much of the injury, and I actually didn’t find out I was hurt until about a month later, so I was training with it, too.”

Ward said Byron could crack the lineup vs. the Barons if his conditioning and timing are up to snuff, and the Ottawa native said he’s ready.

“I feel really good,” said Byron, who posted 21 points in 39 games with the Heat last season. “Fitness-wise, I worked out pretty hard with the strength coach while the team was on the road, and I skated pretty hard. This week was more about the timing back and getting into the rhythm of things. I think I’ve done a good job the last three days.

“To be able to start playing again and not be watching from the stands is pretty exciting.”

Heat forwards Greg Nemisz (lower body) and Lance Bouma (sprained right knee) are still out.

FACIAL HAIR ON THE GROW

Heat players are participating in Movember, the annual moustache-growing campaign to raise awareness and funds to fight prostate cancer and other men’s health issues.

Piskula, sporting a burgeoning lip sweater, handicapped the Heat’s stache-growing contest.

“Definitely not (rookie winger Michael) Ferland,” he said with a chuckle. “I think he’s maybe got a couple hairs on there. But there’s a couple good ones – (Brady) Lamb grows a lot of facial hair. It’s going to be a tight race.”

For information on how to join the Heat’s Movember group, visit abbotsfordheat.com/movember.

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